In an essay Monday in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Penn English and education professor Peter Conn writes of “The Great Accreditation Farce.” His take: Colleges that require professors to sign a “faith statement” — one that, say, requires faculty to believe in intelligent design — do not deserve to be accredited.
A little background on college accreditation: The U.S. Department of Education recognizes many accreditation boards that accredit colleges and universities “to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.” The process, which Conn writes schools spend millions of dollars and tens of thousands of person-hours on, involves reports generated by the school and on-site visits by accreditation teams.
Accreditation is supposed to confer legitimacy on a school, but it’s not like an independent board needs to tell anyone that Penn or Temple provides you with an education at or above acceptable standards. The secondary reason for accreditation is the more important one: Students attending unaccredited schools cannot receive federal financial aid. A-ha!
Conn, who was on a site-visit at a Johns Hopkins accreditation in 2004 and led Penn's accreditation self-study in 2003, has issues with the process. His complaint in the Chronicle essay: Many colleges that require faith statements do not meet acceptable standards.
He writes in the essay:
Students giving tours at Wheaton College in Illinois are said to describe it as the Harvard of evangelical education. But unlike Harvard, Wheaton is one of the colleges that oblige their faculty members to complete faith statements. In other words, at Wheaton the primacy of reason has been abandoned by the deliberate and repeated choices of both its administration and its faculty.
Wheaton is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. When I asked a vice president at the association to justify the manifest disconnect between the bedrock principle of academic freedom and the governing regulations that corrupt academic freedom at Wheaton, he passed my question on to a person with the title "Process Administrator, Public Information." The process administrator’s explanation, in full: "Federal regulations and commission policies require that the commission respect a wide range of institutional missions and belief systems in its accrediting processes."
This, in my view, can only be described as a scandal. Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.
Yes, I know what you're thinking: It reads as if Conn was incredibly offended his query was directed to a process administrator.
The issue here isn't a church/state separation but Conn's belief that faith statements restrict the type of academic work professors can do. He writes he has no objection "to like-minded adherents of one or another religion banding together, calling their association a college, and charging students for the privilege of having their religious beliefs affirmed" — insinuating that such institutions like Wheaton are not colleges at all. He wants a change of the rules, or a stronger enforcement of them.